3 1/2 stars
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga, Jeffrey Wright
Rating: PG-13, for dramatic intensity, violence and brief profanity
Some stories are gangbusters on the printed page, but far less elegant on the big screen. The mediums are distinct, each with advantages and disadvantages; what can feel elegant, lyrical and intriguing as prose can wind up clumsy, tiresome and contrived as a film.
“Source Code” is somewhat unsatisfying, which is a shame; Ben Ripley’s original screenplay is fascinating — if rather derivative — and director Duncan Jones does his best to minimize its built-in weaknesses.
The premise is classic sci-fi, the setting uneasily contemporary: A man on a Chicago-bound train (Jake Gyllenhaal) wakes with a start from what feels like an unsettling dream. The woman sitting opposite (Michelle Monaghan, as Christina) obviously knows him, and chats animatedly; he hasn’t the faintest idea who she is. The routine stuff of travel with a large group of strangers plays out — spilled coffee, punched tickets, impatient and oblivious passengers — while our bewildered protagonist attempts to process his disorientation. They stop once, at an outlying station, then resume their journey.
Minutes later, not far from the city, a massive explosion destroys the entire train, killing everybody on board.
Our hero comes to his senses in what looks like a simulator capsule, now suffering a similar type of dislocation. Gradually, a “handler” communicating via a monitor screen (Vera Farmiga, as Goodwin) talks him back to his own self. Military training takes hold: He’s Colter Stevens, apparently participating in some sort of test, or SOMETHING. Goodwin is vague about details; a fussy scientist type in the background (Jeffrey Wright, as Rutledge) orders her to “send him back.”
And POOF! Stevens is back on the train, resuming the ride from the same waking point, re-living the same events, although experiencing them differently, because he remembers everything from the first time around. But the outcome is the same: Eight minutes later, the bomb goes off and everybody dies … at which point, he regains consciousness back in the simulator. Or whatever it really is.
Stevens gradually learns — as do we — that he’s part of a military/scientific emergency operation that has been mobilized in the wake of the aforementioned catastrophe. Somebody has blown up the train, whether terrorists or a lone loony, and has threatened to explode an even larger device in the heart of Chicago. Through means we really don’t need to obsess about, Stevens’ consciousness can be “projected” into one of the train passenger’s minds, shortly before the catastrophe, in effect taking over that person’s body and soul.
Because of the nature of the explosion, deductive logic suggests that the bombmaker is within viewing range of the train, perhaps initially as one of the passengers. Stevens’ assignment is to figure out who is responsible, and then convey this information back to HQ, so that the impending larger attack can be stopped.
Unfortunately, the technology allows Stevens to enter the subject’s consciousness only during his final eight minutes of life. On the positive side, this process can be repeated as often as necessary, allowing Stevens to consider different “suspects” and attempt different actions each time: “Groundhog Day,” writ seriously.
Which brings us to this film’s primary weakness.
2008’s “Vantage Point” involved the attempted assassination of the American president, as experienced — separately — by roughly a dozen characters. The essential concept here isn’t new; it was the driving force behind director Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 classic, “Rashomon,” where we shared the viewpoints of four different people in order to arrive at the “truth” of the rape/murder in which each was involved. Kurosawa handled this gimmick brilliantly, minimizing repetition while exploring the thoughts, actions and evasive subsequent behavior of each “witness.”
Not so in “Vantage Point,” where the filmmakers repeated the build-up and shooting over and over and over and OVER again, to the point where viewers wanted to scream.
Much as Jones tries to avoid this — and I give him credit for the effort — familiarity breeds the same contempt here. The eight-minute sequence is too brief; there’s not enough time to expand Stevens’ activities in a manner that becomes sufficiently interesting. Christina always starts their initial conversation the same way, and the radiance of Monaghan’s flirtatious smile doesn’t lessen the extreme déjà vu.
Jones paces his film efficiently and economically, which clocks in at a slick 90 minutes. And, in fairness, there’s a lot more going on in Ripley’s screenplay, which borrows heavily from the aforementioned “Rashomon” and echoes a slick 1951 John D. MacDonald novel called “Wine of the Dreamers,” along with an Ambrose Bierce short story called “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” adapted into a memorable 1962 French short film that was televised to American viewers in 1964, as an episode of Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone.”
Although “Source Code” probably would be better if Ripley minimized the details behind what is taking place here, events periodically bog down in techno-babble. Eventually, needlessly, Rutledge goes into all sorts of pseudo-scientific detail that makes less sense as he keeps talking. Worse still, Wright does the film no favors with his jittery, badly overplayed mad scientist type. Rutledge becomes the sort of babbling, condescending nutball — gracious, he even walks with a limp — who’d be more at home in Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, or at Dr. Strangelove’s side.
Otherwise, Jones plays out the hand rather well, given the aforementioned issues. We never see the “body” that Stevens is inhabiting, except when he glances at “himself” in a mirror; we always see Gyllenhaal, just as we always saw Warren Beatty, in 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait.” Fair enough; that’s easy to roll with. And Gyllenhaal is a capable protagonist: completely believable as a guy trying to make sense of an extraordinary set of circumstances, and relying on his military training to orient and ground himself.
Monaghan works a minor miracle, making Christina interesting while forced to repeat much of the same dialogue: not a trivial task. We can see where this is heading; Christina becomes the gal who tempts Stevens to break protocol, and Monaghan pulls it off.
The most intriguing character, though, is Farmiga’s Goodwin. She’s the only person existing in real time, as it were, and also is the humanizing element through whose eyes we confront the increasingly ghastly details of what’s really going down here. She’s the character in this story who responds, reacts and evolves: the person changed by these events. Farmiga delivers a deftly nuanced performance: every bit as subtle and layered as Wright is overblown and irritating.
I like Jones’ ambitions and his filmmaking style; he wrote and directed one of my favorite recent sci-fi films, 2009’s “Moon,” a refreshingly intelligent and thoughtful little drama that was similarly constructed around a central mystery. If his reach slightly exceeds his grasp in “Source Code” — terrible title, by the way — the attempt remains intriguing enough to warrant the price of a ticket … and you can’t help smiling over the way Ripley’s script resolves itself.
In sum then, a worthy effort, if flawed. But I’d love to have read it as a novella.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com